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Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby tomvet » 29 Apr 2017 12:13

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Motivation
Having been somewhat underwhelmed with our last Ocean cruises, a lack of innovative cruise itineraries in European cruises we decided to look at river cruising for 2017. We quickly discovered the Avalons, Viking and Unworlds were significantly above our cruising budget particularly when cruising with 5 necessitated taking three cabins - it was never going to work. We then discovered Phoenix Reisen cruises through Riverscanner.com and their cruise on the Danube on MS Sofia, ticked all boxes in terms of fitting neatly into Mai's Easter holidays from school, cost, itinerary, two cabins etc. The downside, this was a German speaking cruise ship and we nicht sprechen ze Deutsch! We still decided to book on the basis that I can figure out written German in context, we expected some staff members to speak some English and surely there would be a passenger onboard that would willingly help us if we were in trouble.

The itinerary
Day 1 Passau / Germany 15:30
Day 2 Vienna / Austria 10:00 21:30
Day 3 Esztergom / Hungary 08:00 09:00
Day 3 Budapest / Hungary 13:00 23:00
Day 4 Bratislava / Slovakia 14:00 18:00
Day 5 Dürnstein / Austria 08:00 13:00
Day 6 Passau / Germany 09:00

We topped and tailed the cruise with Ryanair Flights to Memmingen and Transavia Flights to Munich with a 6 night pre-cruise stay at the Meininger Hotel in Munich.

Pre-cruise activities
We made good use of the Bayern Ticket which allowed all 5 of us to Travel within Bavaria on a single day for 31€ - in total we used 5 of these to get from Memmingen to Munich, our day trip to Salzburg, our day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle, and our transfer to / from Munich / Passau.

Main sights of our trip were

Climbing inside the statue of Bavaria
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Walking the circumference of the 1972 Olympic Stadium
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Taking in the views from the Olympic Tower
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Visiting the BMW Museum
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Hanging out at Marienplatz
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Daytripping to Salzburg
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Checking out the Nymphenburg Palace and Gardens
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Easter egg hunting at the English Garden
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Braving the elements at Neuschwanstein Castle
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MS Sofia
MS Sofia is a Bulgarian owned and crewed ship that is chartered to Phoenix Reisen. It has four decks. Deck 1 which is partially below the waterline is devoted to cabins and the crews quarters. Deck 2 has the reception area, the shore excursion /cruise director's desk and a small souvenir shop, the hairdressers and the top end cabins. Deck 3 has the Panorama bar and restaurant while deck 4 is the outside sun deck. This ship has no lift and access between decks are via spiral or very steep stairs - this may be a challenge for the less mobile.

Reception
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Shore Excursions
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Stairwell from deck 2 to 3
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Panorama Bar on Deck 3
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Restaurant on deck 3
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Sun deck - unfortunately this was more like a Arctic rather than Danube cruise weather wise so th outside deck was not used very often. It did detract a little from the enjoyment of the cruise as the kids were confined and the inside public areas were overcrowded. Like on all ships everything on the sun deck was collapsible to get under low bridges. There were no loungers, only deck chairs, a pool, giant chess and barbeque area with a dumb waiter to elevate food from the galley underneath - needless to mention we didn't have a BBQ considering the minus degrees weather we had!!!

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And of course .................... my ship carpet fetish!!!!

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Cabin 133
Cabin 133 which is partially below the water line, hence the high windows is a 3 bed cabin by night and a no bed cabin by day. The single lower bed morphs into a sofa and the bunks fold against the wall at night.

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The bathroom is on the left of the room which just has a shower and toilet. Shower replete with hugging curtain and soap/ shower gel dispenser.

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The hand basin was opposite between two full length wardrobes with a top shelf that held the life jackets and extra blanket. There was a shoe horn, blow dryer and umbrella hanging in the wardrobes.

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There were two small tables, flat screen TV but no drawers. The cabin had several strategically placed reading lights for bed time reading when the beds were configured. Note the antique phone!!!

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Each passenger received a Phoenix Reisen holiday ruck sack present in the cabin on day 1, pillow chocolates and towel animals.

One lower bed set up!

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Ready for bed with some already asleep!

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Towel animals with proper velcroed eyes!!

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High quality PR 'Welcome to my house' chocolates!!!

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Dining
Breakfast was what I consider to be a typical German buffet - fresh fruit and buckets of yoghurt (as opposed to cartons), breads, cold meats and cheeses, hard boiled and scrambled eggs, juices, teas and coffees along with fish, quark an other things that are not for me. Lunch and dinner were multi course affairs and reflected the country / region we were sailing through and included Goulash, schnitzels, bratwurst, strudels etc etc. Typically a cold starter was on the table when we entered the dining room, this was followed by a soup, sometimes and fish and sorbet course, main course, dessert, cheese board, fresh fruit and help yourself tea and coffee in the panorama bar. Food was excellent, no hesitation in stating the best we have had on a cruise since our first HAL cruise. The problem OH and I had was not to demolish the kids meals in addition to our own, it was so good. There were a welcome and farewell gala dinner including the Baked Alaska parade - the best Baked Alaska I have ever had - we had seconds!!! Meals were announced by a jingle over the intercom! Strange but cute. The wait staff were excellent so how did we understand what was on the menu. Our waiter did not have any English at all so the first evening was a tad awkward but he enlisted the assistance of a colleague so that was problem sorted! The Catering Manager (Austrian - one of two non Bulgarians on the ship!) issued us with an English menu and we then just pointed- sorted for the rest of the cruise!!!

There was a pirate themed night which was hilarious with the waiters 'harassing' the passengers, tugging at ladies hand bages etc. Passengers dressed up as pirates.

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The tables were set haphazardly

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.... and the staff literally threw our plates of starter on the tables at us!

It was a laugh a minute affair!

Una's reaction after a 'pirate' kidnapped her and ran around the dining room with her!

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Juices, soft drinks, house wine and house beers, tea and coffee were included in the price. Virgin Cocktails were not, but our girls were treated to one each evening - this was a total contrast to our experience on Ocean cruise ships where 'nothing is for nothing'. I will speak about customer focus later in this review!

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Entertainment
As a German speaking ship we expected to have to entertain ourselves - we were pleasantly surprised. Duo SOfia were a organist / vocalist and violinist / guitarist duo which played easy listening music each night which some girls liked to dance to!

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The crew put on a Bulgarian Folklore Show.

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The crew also put on a skit one evening, there was no dialogue put it was hilarious!!!

I think you'll get the drift............... (Gill definitely will !!!!)

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The Ports

Vienna
To say we had some truly awful weather on this trip would be an understatement. In Vienna it was -2oC with a wind chill making it feel like -7oC. The awful weather made our arrival into Vienna so late, that PR docked in Tuilin and bussed passengers into Vienna. Out door sightseeing was a no no so for us it was forget about Schonbrunn, forget about Belvedere and we headed straight to Blue Room at the Hotel Sacher for Viennese Coffees and Sacher Torte.

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Luckily it was a no change subway ride from Opera to Praterstern for our ride on the Giant Wheel through a blizzard -all adding to the atmosphere but taking from the view!!!

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Budapest
We did not due the Bend in the Danube Tour from Esztergom to Budapest. The weather turned worse and what should have been a great sail in turned out to be a partial non - event.

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We disembarked, took one look at the Hotel Gellert across the river and decided that a day in a Budapest Thermal Bath would be order of the day!

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One of our changing cabins ....

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Bratislava
What a difference a day makes weather wise. Blue skies and sunshine but still chilly is what met us in Bratislava. We went for a stroll about the Old Town visited the Blue Church, saw the Changing of the Guard at the Presidential Palace and Mai and I had tea on the UFO Tower. What a terrific sail in and away too.

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Durnstein
Back to grey skies today. Durnstein is a pretty small village in the Wachau Valley. This day reminded me of our day in Kotor last year because we hiked up to the Castle ruins that overlooked the village here too, with great views of the village and the Blue steeple of the Abbey and the Danube. We then later visited the Abbey to catch the final moments of an organ recital. Crikey, this was an expensive place!!!

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Conclusion
We took a chance on PR, it was German speaking, there were no English language reviews to be read, we had no recommendations and we did not speak German! It has all the ingredients for the cruise from hell. The boat was old, described as 3* and we had awful weather that we were not prepared for! So what made this one of our most memorable cruises ever! Simple!!! A customer focussed crew. The effort made on their part to ensure we had a great cruise! It just highlighted to me the grab all mentality of the Ocean cruise lines. To mention the little things that made me feel important:

    The efforts made by the Catering Manager and Cruise Director (Dutch) to have the menus and daily programme translated
    Cruise Director seeking us out to update us on any changes
    Staff taking the time to talk (as best they could!!!)
    Complimentary virgin cocktails for the girls
    Orientation information and free maps of very port give freely and willingly to us - no keeping folk in the dark in the hope they can sell an excursion
    Ordering a taxi for us to the train station in Passau on disembarkation instead of paying for a more expensive ship sponsored shore excursion
    No hard sell for anything onboard
    No annoying photographers!
    Staff just being nice to you!!!!

We are booked on a second Phoenix Reisen river cruise on the Rhine in November and I can't wait!!!!
October 19 - A-ROSA Luna - Lyon- Viviers - Arles - Avignon - Vienne - Lyon
tomvet
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Re: Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby Seamouse » 29 Apr 2017 13:35

Glad you enjoyed your River Cruise. An excellent crew certainly makes a big difference, to your enjoyment. We wondered if we would miss the evening shows, that we often go to see on Ocean cruises, but found that Dinner was a more leisurely affair, and it was nice just to sit in the lounge and listen to a good pianist. Also on our river cruise we had an accordionist visit one evening, to play for us., and a group of singers/musicians who were very amusing. A music quiz on another evening, which was great fun. The scenery you saw looks amazing, even though the weather was not always kind!! I hope you find your Christmas Cruise just as good., will look forward to reading about it and seeing the pictures.
Chris
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Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby judgegeoff » 29 Apr 2017 14:04

What a fantastic and informative review Tom, many thanks for sharing it with us. :clap: :clap: :clap: We too were delighted with the lack of hard sell and photographers on our recent river cruise. We are currently looking at sailing the River Douro in Portugal for our next cruise, although it will have to wait until after our youngest daughter's wedding.
Geoff

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Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby JollyJill » 29 Apr 2017 17:07

A great review Tom with lovely photos of the family as always. :clap:

Sorry to hear that the weather so awful but delighted that it didn't spoil your cruise. :)
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Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby divingbrit » 29 Apr 2017 18:41

Thank you , I enjoyed reading that
Scuba diving is not a Sport its an Art
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Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby Dave » 29 Apr 2017 18:58

Hi Tom. Many thanks for posting this review; it's much appreciated. :thumbup: ...and an excellent read it was too. :D I particularly liked reading your conclusion and I agree with you about what really matters.

(We've done two European river cruises during the Easter break. The first was freezing and the second was just cold, so we decided to do non-cruising Easter holidays instead.)
Dave

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Re: Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby tomvet » 30 Apr 2017 09:58

Seamouse wrote:Glad you enjoyed your River Cruise. An excellent crew certainly makes a big difference, to your enjoyment. We wondered if we would miss the evening shows, that we often go to see on Ocean cruises, but found that Dinner was a more leisurely affair, and it was nice just to sit in the lounge and listen to a good pianist. Also on our river cruise we had an accordionist visit one evening, to play for us., and a group of singers/musicians who were very amusing. A music quiz on another evening, which was great fun. The scenery you saw looks amazing, even though the weather was not always kind!! I hope you find your Christmas Cruise just as good., will look forward to reading about it and seeing the pictures.


Thanks Chris, you reminded me that our organist / vocalist was also an accordionist as he played the Happy Birthday song on it for passengers who had a Birthday whilst on board!
Yes dinner for us was leisurely and more civilised that what we have had on ocean cruises but that may be because our kids are now more civilised and will sit for the duration of a meal!
As regards the scenery - there was plenty of mist and often it was too cold and miserable to really take it in and enjoy it.
October 19 - A-ROSA Luna - Lyon- Viviers - Arles - Avignon - Vienne - Lyon
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Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby tomvet » 30 Apr 2017 10:01

judgegeoff wrote:What a fantastic and informative review Tom, many thanks for sharing it with us. :clap: :clap: :clap: We too were delighted with the lack of hard sell and photographers on our recent river cruise. We are currently looking at sailing the River Douro in Portugal for our next cruise, although it will have to wait until after our youngest daughter's wedding.


Nothing like a wedding to put a hole in your finances Geoff! I am completely blown away by Phoenix Reisen and their hospitality etc. A Duoro cruise sounds wunderbar but what I have researched they appear to be the priciest on the market or one of at least.
October 19 - A-ROSA Luna - Lyon- Viviers - Arles - Avignon - Vienne - Lyon
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Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby tomvet » 30 Apr 2017 10:03

JollyJill wrote:A great review Tom with lovely photos of the family as always. :clap:

Sorry to hear that the weather so awful but delighted that it didn't spoil your cruise. :)


Since the weather was so bad we definitely feel we have missed out, Vienna and Budapest for Siobhan and Budapest for me as I have been to Vienna twice previously. I would have no hesitation in repeating this cruise again, perhaps not in April though. From what I read, weather has gotten worse and it is almost May 1st - 1st day of summer!!!
October 19 - A-ROSA Luna - Lyon- Viviers - Arles - Avignon - Vienne - Lyon
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Review: Phoenix Reisen MS Sofia Danube cruise

Postby tomvet » 30 Apr 2017 10:11

Dave wrote:Hi Tom. Many thanks for posting this review; it's much appreciated. :thumbup: ...and an excellent read it was too. :D I particularly liked reading your conclusion and I agree with you about what really matters.

(We've done two European river cruises during the Easter break. The first was freezing and the second was just cold, so we decided to do non-cruising Easter holidays instead.)


I forgot to mention in my summing up that riverscanner.com gave us 40€ OBC for shore excursions that we did not use, PR returned the money to us in cash - they were not obligated to do this at all. Cant ever see Costa being that generous!

As regards cruising at Easter / April time - this is the second time we have cruised in April. Last year was bad and we put it down to just being unlucky, this year was terrible so fool me twice shame on me applies - never again an April cruise in Europe for us - weather to fickle. I can deal with cold / dry weather but cold and wet is just not bearable. We had to use socks and plastic bags on our hands to push the buggy in Vienna and Budapest - it was that piercing. Needless to mention we hadn't packed gloves as it had been 21oC the week previous and we expected the weather to get warmer as summer approached and not colder - well not a full 29oC colder!!! :shock:
October 19 - A-ROSA Luna - Lyon- Viviers - Arles - Avignon - Vienne - Lyon
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